Ben Dreith gave Denver a presence in the Super Bowl long before John Elway brought a Super Bowl title to Denver.
Dreith was on the field as the referee in the second matchup between the NFL and AFL in Miami on Jan. 14, 1968, when Green Bay beat the Oakland Raiders 33-14. That was 30 years before Elway and the Broncos beat the Packers 31-24 in Super Bowl XXXII.
“The first two games were called World Championships,” Dreith said. “They used six officials in those days instead of seven and three came from the AFL and three from the NFL.” Dreith was the referee again in Super Bowl VIII in Houston, Jan. 13, 1974, when Miami won 24-7 over Minnesota. His third appearance was Super Bowl XV in New Orleans, Jan. 25, 1981, when Oakland prevailed 27-10 over Philadelphia.
Working the Super Bowl was a mark of achievement for officials in Dreith’s day because the opportunity was based on a rating system for the entire season.
“The officials with the highest ratings went to the Super Bowl,” Dreith explained. “I was rated in the upper third every year I was in the league. Now they rate the crews and take the highest-rated group, but they won’t let a rookie official work the Super Bowl.” While his Super Bowl appearances were the ultimate for Dreith, there were other highpoints from his years in the striped shirts.
“I worked a playoff game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Jets,” Dreith said. “Joe Namath threw six touchdown passes for the Jets and Johnny Unitas threw four for the Colts. I once worked 28 straight playoff games.”
Dreith earned the reputation of being a no-nonsense, tough minded official. His attitude on the field carried over to his personality off the field. One of his prized possessions is a tape from Art McNally, the NFL’s former director of officials. On the tape, McNally said that everyone in the NFL knew that “when Ben stepped on the field the game was under control, no ifs, ands or buts about it. He was an outstanding referee.”
Dreith ended his NFL officiating career in 1990, but not before throwing a flag of his own. He was 65 and the league wanted him to move off the playing field and into the replay booth. “The referee runs everything in the game and that’s what I wanted to do,” Dreith stated. “They let me work another year, but they demoted me to line judge.”
Dreith’s route to becoming a top NFL official began in Globeville on Denver’s near northeast side. He was a prominent athlete at Denver’s North High School and a three-sport standout at Colorado State College (now UNC) in Greeley. He played semipro basketball in Denver for the Central Bankers.
After college, Dreith coached basketball for a year at Center (CO) High School, but moved in 1952 to the Denver Public Schools system where he taught for 38 years. He joined the faculty at Lincoln High School when it opened in 1960. His officiating career began at the high school level, moved to the college ranks in the old Skyline Conference and went on to the professional plateau in 1960 when the AFL began play. He officiated at all three levels for a time, before the NFL restricted its officials to pro games only.
But take it from Ben Dreith, players and coaches aren’t the only people making their living on the football field who strive to be in a Super Bowl.
We have a personal foul on No. 99 of the defense. After he tackled the quarterback, he’s giving him the business down there – that’s a 15-yard penalty.